By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 22, 2017
Last Friday Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States of America. As in so many other offensive things he has tweeted since November, Trump began this year by trying to besmirch (unfortunately one dictionary defines the meaning of this word as “to blacken”) the reputation of John Lewis and his courageous actions in turning the USA away from its segregationist past and setting it on a path to achieve its founders’ dreams.
Here is a man, with no sense of history, dismissing an icon of America’s attempt to redeem its past, with a silly phrase “All talk, talk, talk-no action or results.” Such disparagement led David Remnick of the New Yorker to ask: “Who would have the impoverished language to dismiss the whole of John Lewis as “sad”? To which he answers: “As it happens, the President-elect of the US.”
This is a sad time in America’s history. It portends badly for the future of blacks and other minorities in that country. Here is a president without a moral compass whose only function, it seems, is to belittle prominent figures (one can also cite the example of John McCain) who, in their own ways, have sought to have America realize the country’s dreams: a society in which all men and women can live in liberty and tranquility.
When Lewis was putting his body on the line to achieve an equal society, Trump was avoiding the draft-he claimed to have bone spurs in his feet-and preventing African-Americans from renting apartments in his buildings in New York City and in Norfolk, Virginia. His people coded their applications with a “C.” He inherited this noble tradition from his father Fred.
While Trump was studying real estate business at Wharton School, Pennsylvania, and living a glamorous life in New York City, Lewis, a sharecropper’s son, was directing a Voter Education Project in Atlanta, Georgia.
While Trump was sacrificing for America, creating thousands of jobs as he says, Lewis was registering millions of Americans to vote. Trump cared about making money; Lewis cared about liberating people and releasing their human potential.
These values will come to a head in 2017: a bully who believes that money and the making of money are the sine qua non of a good life; a civil rights leader who believes in people and stands for honesty and decency.
Margaret Burnham, a professor of Law and Africana Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, is a friend. Together we watched the results of the presidential election on election night. A month ago she made the following argument in the London Guardian:
“At the end of the American civil war, before Reconstruction could plant its feet solidly in the South, white people in the region fought to ‘redeem’ their states from freedmen, whom they saw as corrupt and ignorant, and northern rulers, whom they deemed to be corrupt opportunists.
“So bloody was the campaign that ultimately returned black people to near-slavery that one writer, Nicholas Lemann, described the redemption period, from 1876 to the mid-1890s, as the last battle of the civil war.
“I remind you of this because the president-elect’s selection of Jeff Sessions as attorney general suggests, perhaps more than any other appointment, that the redeemers have once again triumphed” (December 19, 2016).
Lewis, breaking congressional tradition, testified against Sessions last week when the Senate Judiciary Committee held its confirmation hearing on his (Sessions) suitability to be attorney general. He said: “I was born in rural Alabama, not very far from where Senator Sessions was raised. There was no way to escape or deny the choke hold of discrimination and racial hate that surrounded us….I tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and racial discrimination….
“It doesn’t matter how Senator Sessions may smile, how friendly he may speak to you. We need someone who will stand up and speak up and speak out for the people who need help…We need someone as attorney general who is going to look out for all of us, not just some of us” (January 11, 2017).
In speaking of the frightening prospect of a Sessions Justice Department and an altered Supreme Court, Burnham warns: “Far more frightening, however is the real possibility that the current regime will usher in an era of sustained political violence, reminiscent, in purpose if not precisely in kind, of what was experienced at the original redemption.”
Burnham reminds us that in the presidential election of 1880 (at the beginning of the Reconstruction period) black voter turnout in North Carolina was 81 percent. That figure dropped to 1 percent by the 1912 election. She notes: “While a black North Carolinian was elected to Congress in 1897, a second would not serve in that body until 1992.”
Blacks and other minorities face a tumultuous four years under Trump who wishes to turn back the civil rights clock by fifty years. They must do everything to delegitimize his presidency. Such treatment, for an egomaniac, would be as bitter as wormwood and sharp as a two-edged sword.
Professor Cudjoe’s email address is email@example.com. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.